By Ali Sawafta and Rami Ayyub
BURQA, West Bank (Reuters) - For many West Bank Palestinians, the olive tree is both a revered cultural emblem and an economic necessity - but it has also become a focal point of a struggle between them and Israeli settlers for a land they both claim.
More than 1,000 trees owned by Palestinian farmers have been burned or damaged in the Israeli-occupied territory since the harvest began three weeks ago, according to a United Nations report.
The Oct 23 report by humanitarian affairs office UNOCHA has also logged 19 disruptions "by people believed or known to be Israeli settlers," with 23 Palestinian farmers injured.
While the settlers dispute those figures, in normal years peace monitors accompany the farmers to protect the harvest. But the coronavirus pandemic has made this harder.
Some Israeli activists are still deploying. "With COVID-19 it is impossible for foreigners to come, harder for Israelis," said one activist, Guy Butavia.
Olive farmers in areas near some Israeli settlements say they face problems each year.
"When we try to reach our fields, the army protects the settlers and prevents us from accessing our olives," said Adnan Barakat, council head of Burqa village, near Ramallah.
In Burqa, Israeli settlers "stoned and physically assaulted Palestinian olive pickers on three occasions, triggering clashes", UNOCHA said.
Calling on Israel to ensure the farmers' safety, U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov told the Security Council on Monday: "Each year, the ability of Palestinians to harvest is compromised due to access restrictions, attacks and intimidation."
Yigal Dilmoni, head of Yesha, the main settler council in the West Bank, said most of the accusations came from "dubious" sources.
"For many years now, extremist organisations... have been carrying out provocative actions and exploiting the harvest season to incite against Israeli civilians," he said.
"I live on the ground and see thousands of Palestinians harvesting their olives daily without any problem."
Around 430,000 Israeli settlers live among three million Palestinians in the West Bank, territory that Israel captured in 1967. Settlers have also been targets of Palestinian stabbing, shooting and car-ramming attacks.
Palestinians claim the West Bank for a future state. But Israel cites its security needs and historical ties to the region.
Tensions rose this summer over Palestinian fears that newly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would implement pre-election promises to annex part of the West Bank.
Last week in Burqa, Reuters journalists there saw Palestinians and Israelis confronting each other. Israeli security forces intervened, firing tear gas and stun grenades towards Palestinians, who threw stones back.
A brush fire broke out amid the clashes and Israeli firing, and spread to nearby olive trees.
The Israeli military said security forces had coordinated with landowners to ensure safe picking, but were met with "rioters" hurling rocks.
"A few arson attempts were identified," a military statement said. "Troops responded with riot dispersal means... During the incident, a fire broke out and several trees were damaged."
The military said it "would not allow the olive harvest to be used in order to harm Israeli civilians or security forces."
(This story corrects Yigal Dilmoni's title to head of Yesha from spokesman in 10th paragraph)
(Writing by Stephen Farrell and Rami Ayyub; editing by John Stonestreet and David Holmes)